Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Five Things Every Windows User Should Know

Microsoft's proud proclamations that Windows 8 won't require users to buy a new PC speaks volumes about the company's longtime business model. After all, each new generation of the company's resource-hungry operating system has traditionally required new hardware as well as software, thus benefiting both Microsoft and its hardware partners.

windows 8

That it's departed from that approach this time around -- albeit to a limited extent -- suggests it may finally have noticed that consumers don't actually appreciate being forced to replace technology that's still perfectly good. Perhaps more likely, I'm guessing the concession stems in large part from the fact that so many users have adopted other, non-desktop devices, so the old PC upgrade treadmill isn't so viable anymore.

Either way, what pains me to see is how many non-Mac users seem to view Windows 8 as an inevitable part of their future. It's true that Microsoft has agreements with the majority of hardware makers to bundle its operating system on their devices, so it will certainly be omnipresent on the shelves at Best Buy, for instance. That fact, indeed, is the primary reason for its current monopoly in the operating system market.

But there are so many choices, and all too few computer users are even aware that they have them.

Are you considering Windows 8 for your future computing environment? If it's truly the best operating system for your needs, then you certainly should. Before you decide, though, there are a few things that you -- and every PC user -- should be aware of.

1. There Are Choices

The personal computing world has long been described in terms of Macs and PCs -- meaning Windows PCs -- suggesting that those platforms are users' only choices. The arrival of mobile devices and especially Android has changed that to some extent, to be sure, but fundamentally it's still often portrayed as an either/or world.

That, indeed, was vividly underscored just recently by decision-making site Hunch's survey results.

The reality, however, is that there are alternatives--many of them. Microsoft may have built an empire through its deals with hardware manufacturers to ensure that its software is everywhere, but that doesn't mean it's the best software for you.

If only one type of car were available for sale in your town, would you assume it's the best one?

linux windows

PC users owe it to themselves to consider their options, and those options include a broad array of Linux distributions tailored to virtually every need.

2. Hardware Can Last Longer

Despite Microsoft's generous assurances, some features in Windows 8 won't run properly on existing hardware. Not only that, but the company is going to great lengths to influence the design of new devices.

Once again, then, users will only fully enjoy any benefits of the new operating system if they pay in and get the hardware that's been customized for it. And with Microsoft's hand involved in the design, there's a strong potential for vendor lock-in.

That's bad for your budget, your freedom and the environment. There's no real reason to replace all this existing hardware, and certainly not with Microsoft-sanctioned alternatives. Most Linux distributions, on the other hand, can run well in diverse computing environments.

3. Malware Isn't Everywhere

Each time a big new virus hits the Windows-using masses, it's common to hear it referred to as "PC malware."

The reality, however, is that it's almost always Windows-specific malware. Windows' ubiquity, among other key factors, makes it more attractive to hackers and more vulnerable to malware than Linux is.

windows malware

Monocultures are bad in the natural world and they're bad in computing, too. No operating system is perfectly secure, but--as security experts have noted--you're a lot better off on Linux.

4. Proprietary Software Will Cost You

Even aside from the fancy hardware and the anti-malware products you'll need to buy, proprietary software suffers from a number of other disadvantages as well. First off, of course, is that it's expensive -- even if it comes bundled on your computer, you've paid for it, you can be sure.

Linux, on the other hand, is free.

Perhaps even more important, though, is the way proprietary software limits what business and individual users can do with it. Because the code is closed, users can't see or modify that code to suit their own needs.

Those on open source Linux, however, can see and alter the code at will. That flexibility, in fact, is one of the primary benefits cited recently by the U.S. Department of Defense.

5. Linux Is Easy to Test, Install and Use

If you feel even the slightest uncertainty that Windows is something you need to remain committed to -- because it is a commitment, and a significant one -- it's well worth your while to take Linux for a test drive.

There are many ways to do that without any commitment, and you can go right back to Windows if you so choose. If you don't, most Linux distributions are easy to install, and they typically even come bundled with a number of great productivity applications as well.

There's also plenty of free and paid support available -- more, in fact, and better, than what many proprietary companies offer.

I'm not saying that Linux is the best operating system for everyone, or that it's perfect. But given all the costs associated with using Windows, you owe it to yourself and your business to consider the alternatives.

Katherine NoyesKatherine Noyes has been an ardent geek ever since she first conquered Pyramid of Doom on an ancient TRS-80. Today she covers business and tech in all its forms, with an emphasis on Linux and open source software.

Five power tips for LibreOffice users

In a recent post, I introduced LibreOffice and shared some pointers to help ease the transition from Microsoft Office to this newly forked piece of software. After you get your bearings with these tools, you may want to expand your LibreOffice prowess and become a power user. How do you do that? You learn some advanced techniques. Here are five tricks that will get you up to power-user speed fairly quickly.

1: Use the slideshow Presenter Console

This feature will be a boon to power presenters. Most presentation modes offer the presenter the same view the audience sees. Because of this, presenters tend to rely on notes to deliver a more professional presentation. This is no longer a necessity with LibreOffice. Thanks to the Presenter Console, the presenter sees a different view from the audience. The presenter can see:

  • The current slide
  • Notes on the current slide
  • A preview of the next slide
  • The current and/or elapsed time

This feature (included as an extension of LibreOffice) will go a long way toward making your delivery as seamless and professional as possible.

2: Apply languages on the fly

Have you ever added a sentence or paragraph to your document in another language, only to have the spell-checker or thesaurus blow up when it comes across that section? That is not an issue with LibreOffice. Say you have entered a Spanish paragraph in your document. You can make LibreOffice aware that it needs to use a different dictionary for that section by highlighting the section, clicking Tools | Languages, and selecting the correct language for the paragraph. (Note: You must have that language pack installed for LibreOffice.) Now, when you use the spell checker or thesaurus, the correct dictionary will be used.

3: Don’t overlook templates in Impress

If you recall, the templates included in OpenOffice Impress were less than stellar. Actually, they were less than usable. To create a professional-looking presentation in Impress, you had to either download templates or create your own. This is no longer the case, as LibreOffice includes numerous professional-quality templates. To make use of these templates, click on the New drop-down, select Presentation, choose From Template in the first window of the wizard, and then select the template you want to use. You will find templates for numerous looks and feels. And of course, you can modify these templates to suit your needs.

4: Add extensions to the pre-bundled list

When OpenOffice was installed, you might have opened up the Extension Manager only to find nothing there. LibreOffice changes that and includes a number of extensions that handle a variety of tasks. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can search and download more. To open the Extension Manager, click Tools | Extension Manager. From within the Manager, you can click Get More Extensions Online to find the extension you need. You can also add a previously downloaded extension (or an extension you’ve created in-house) by clicking the Add button and navigating to the location where you saved the extension.

5: Import PDFs with ease

In previous iterations of OpenOffice, the PDF import was a kludge at best. Although LibreOffice handles the importing of PDFs the same way (imports them as LibreOffice Draw documents), the results are far better. Once you have imported your PDF (you do so by using the Open dialog), you can edit text, images, and layouts by clicking and dragging (for images/layout) or double-clicking a line of text to edit. (You can edit only a single line of text at a time.) When you finish editing your PDF, don’t save the document — instead, export it as a PDF by clicking File | Export as PDF.

More tips

Obviously, this only scratches the surface of advanced tips for LibreOffice. But since this suite is “new,” this set of tips will get you started.

Five tips for migrating from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice

Many small businesses are migrating from Microsoft Office to alternative solutions to save money and sidestep the Ribbon interface that arrived with Office 2007. There are plenty of alternatives, but none of them stacks up to Microsoft Office as well as LibreOffice.

LibreOffice? Wasn’t it OpenOffice? Yes it was and still is. But OpenOffice has been forked, and a newer, more actively developed alternative has been born. That alternative is LibreOffice, and it’s already surpassing OpenOffice in terms of development. Naturally, when you make this switch, your users will need to know a few best practices to avoid the typical migration pitfalls. The following tips will help ease the transition.

1: Learn the names

The first thing your users should know is that LibreOffice has everything they need to get their jobs done (with respect to office suites). Along with that, they need to know the corresponding names for the tools. Let’s compare:

Microsoft Office LibreOffice
Word processing Word Writer
Spreadsheet Excel Calc
Presentation PowerPoint Impress
Database Access Base

LibreOffice also includes a graphics tool, Draw, that Microsoft Office does not include, as well as a tool to help you create mathematical formulas (Formula). After installation, each of these tools can be found on the Start menu under the LibreOffice subfolder.

2: Take advantage of the LibreOffice Desktop

LibreOffice includes a very good desktop tool. Instead of having to open individual tools/files from the Start menu, users can simply open up the LibreOffice Desktop. From within a single window, they can launch any of the included tools, open a recent file, manage the LibreOffice extensions, and manage their templates. To open this desktop, select the LibreOffice


entry (where


is the release number).

3: Save files in a format Microsoft Office can read

As much as it pains me to bring this up, I feel it’s my duty. By default, LibreOffice will save in its native formats. As you might expect, Microsoft Office will not know what to do with these open formats. Make sure your users know they’ll need to save in a format that Microsoft Office can read, if they’re sharing documents with Office users. They can do this two ways. On a case-by-case basis, they can click Save As and select the proper Microsoft Office document format. They can also change LibreOffice’s default formats by clicking Tools | Options, selecting General from the Load/Save section, and selecting the default format for each type of document they use.

4: Don’t expect personalized menus

Microsoft Office includes dynamic personalized menus that remember and display the most commonly used menu entries. LibreOffice does not have this, so your users will have to get used to the full layout of the various menus. It is possible to get around this by adding user-configured buttons to the toolbars for the most-used menu entries. But this is a more advanced feature, so you may not want to show it to your less tech-savvy users.

5: Use familiar keyboard shortcuts

Many of the keyboard shortcuts your users have grown accustomed to work the same way in LibreOffice:

  • [Ctrl]C - Copy
  • [Ctrl]V - Paste
  • [Ctrl]Z - Undo
  • [Ctrl]A - Select All
  • [Ctrl]N - New Document
  • [Ctrl]S - Save Document
  • [Ctrl]P - Print
LibreOffice is well laid out in terms of functionality. Users who have used the standard toolbar/menus found in most software on the planet will quickly adapt to this new office suite. And since most users use only about 10% of an office suite’s capability, they shouldn’t have any trouble getting up to speed on the features they need to do their work.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Free Software's surprising sympathy with Catholic doctrine

"The technological configuration underlying the Internet has a considerable bearing on its ethical aspects. Use of the new information technology and the Internet needs to be informed and guided by a resolute commitment to the practice of solidarity in the service of the common good. The Internet requires international cooperation in setting standards and establishing mechanisms to promote and protect [that common good]. Individuals, groups, and nations must have access to these new technologies. Cyberspace ought to be a resource of comprehensive information and services available without charge to all, and in a wide range of languages. The winner in this process will be humanity as a whole and not just a wealthy elite that controls science, technology, and the planet's resources. Determined action in the private and public sectors is needed to close and eventually eliminate the digital divide."

The above statements sound as if they could have been written by Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). In fact, they come from the Vatican Report "Ethics in Internet" (EiI). The FSF position on the same issues is that society "needs information that is truly available to its citizens -- for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate."

Affinities between Catholic doctrine and Free Software

Technically (and ethically) speaking, Free Software, regardless of its price, can be freely modified and shared, and is free from per-seat costs, royalties, patents, and similar restrictions. The same definition can be applied to file formats and communication protocols. The term Free (with uppercase F) here indicates software and standards available under these conditions. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has published several documents that clearly match this approach to information technology. Here are some examples.

For the purposes of this article, we can regard software programs as a category of machinery. The 1967 Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the development of peoples "Populorum Progressio" said, "Unless the existing machinery is modified, the disparity between rich and poor nations will increase rather than diminish."

Then in 1971, the Pastoral Instruction "Communio et Progressio" (CeP) on the means of social communication stated:

With the right to be informed goes the duty to seek information. Information does not simply occur; it has to be sought. On the other hand, in order to get it, the man who wants information must have access to the varied means of social communication.

Consequently, the Catholic Church should not use proprietary file formats and computer protocols, since they can become a way to prevent access to information, restrict it or lock end users to any specific (maybe too expensive) software program.

This is very similar to Stallman's request to put an end to proprietary email attachments.

This right to information is inseparable from freedom of communication.

When it comes to computer-based communication, this can be only guaranteed with Free formats and protocols. It also implies that computer users should be free to choose which programs to use for such communication. The same wish was expressed by Stallman.

This freedom of communication also implies that individuals and groups must be free to seek out and spread information. It also means that they should have free access to the media....

An example of the cultural potential of the media can be found in their service to the traditional folk arts of countries where stories, plays, song and dance still express an ancient national inheritance. Because of their modern techniques, the media can make these achievements known more widely. They can record them so that they can be seen and heard again and again and make them accessible even in districts where the old traditions have vanished. In this way, the media help to impress on a nation a proper sense of its cultural identity and by expressing this, delight and enrich other cultures and countries as well.

Many developing countries are already successfully using free software and formats to preserve their cultural heritage since free software can be adapted quickly, at the smallest possible cost, to any language or dialect. Catholic missionaries worldwide should be informed that such tools exist.

Ten years after CeP, Pope John Paul II wrote in the Encyclical "Laborem exercens" that through work, man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being." As long as he

intends his work also to increase the common good developed together with his compatriots, thus realizing that in this way work serves to add to the heritage of the whole human family, of all the people living in the world....

In Christian tradition, the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone....

The Church has always proclaimed that "when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself."

The GNU Manifesto of the Free Software movement only talks about programming and programmers, but there we can find a vision of work (programming in this case) as a way to become a better person and help others: "The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs.... GNU serves as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to, this is an important happiness that money cannot replace."

In 2002, besides the above quoted EiI, the Vatican published "The Church and Internet," which reminds us that "Church leaders are obliged to use the full potential of the computer age to serve the human and transcendent vocation of every person" because the Internet "offers people direct and immediate access to important religious and spiritual resources." The same document points out that, as early as 1992, the Pastoral Instruction Aetatis Novae had called two-way communication and public opinion "one of the ways of realizing in a concrete manner the Church's character as communio." The Catholic Church is expected (EiI) "to have a visible, active presence on the Internet and be a partner in the public dialogue about its development" and "be of help by indicating ethical and moral criteria which are relevant to the process."

What about the file formats? The format used to store Church files is even more important than the programs used to access them. Official Church records should last and remain available for millennia. Nothing less durable than parchment, or less freely readable, should be used for these purposes, especially if its availability depends on the survival on any single private company.

Technology recommendations for the Church

The Catholic Church has acknowledged that the Internet is an opportunity too important for all humanity to be missed. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Church has not yet realized (at least officially) that Her concerns and recommendations on social communications should be reflected in the software, file formats, and computer protocols She uses.

The Free Software movement, albeit unintentionally, has already created software "machinery" that fully conforms to all the guidelines cited above. The Catholic Church's vision on means of social communication can be fully realized with free protocols and file formats such as OpenDocument. By itself, choosing the right technology will never be enough to achieve common good, but it is a necessary step in the right direction.

After I started writing this article I discovered two Christian pastors who have, each independently, come to similar conclusions. The first one is Rev. Parris of the Matheteuo Christian Fellowship, a Baptist Church, who has also published several manuals to help churches (and other non-profit institutions) to switch to Free Software. His "Penguin Driven Church Office" is almost exclusively a technical report, but also notes that "Richard Stallman ... may be an atheist, but his view of software has close theological parallels to Christian theology. Proprietary software limits my ability to help my neighbor, one of the cornerstone of the Christian faith."

I also came across a Catholic priest in Italy, Don Paolo La Terra, who is the director of the Diocesan Office of Ragusa (Sicily) for Catholic Education, Culture, School and University, besides teaching in several institutions. In his home page, Don Paolo declares he is convinced that "both the formulation and the philosophy of Open Source are very evangelic" and dedicates to his the readers "a verse which, I think, really is a theological foundation of Free Software: 'Simply I learned about her, and ungrudgingly do I share -- her riches I do not hide away' (The Book of Wisdom 7,13)".

The whole Catholic Church should steer in this direction. Remember the request contained in EiI: "Determined action in the private and public sectors is needed to close and eventually eliminate the digital divide." To this aim, the Church should officially adopt only free (in the sense explained above) file formats and computer protocols, both internally and for any communication with third parties. Practically speaking, this means, at least:

  • Adopting the Free international standard OpenDocument for office documents in all Catholic institutions worldwide.
  • Avoiding proprietary file formats and protocols on Catholic Web sites and in official Church documents, and not accepting them in any official communication.
  • Making sure that all Catholic Web sites are certified as viewable with any browser.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Proprietary software keeps users helpless

First published in Linux Format Issue 145

Without Richard Matthew Stallman there would be no GNU, and without GNU there would be no Linux distributions as we know them today.

Richard Matthew Stallman started the GNU's Not Unix project in 1983 to create a totally free operating system, and later the General Public License to guarantee its freedom. By 1991 much of GNU was finished, although it was lacking a kernel - that's where Linus Torvalds and his Linux kernel come in.

Despite the success of GNU/Linux, Stallman hasn't opted for an easy life: he campaigns tirelessly to protect our software freedoms, alerting us to potential threats that new technologies bring.

Linux Format magazine met Richard at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London, and put to him some of the questions you asked…

Richard Matthew Stallman: First, I want to tell you about free software because I want that to be in the interview. Many users of the GNU/Linux system will not have heard the ideas of free software. They will not be aware that we have ideas, that a system exists because of ethical ideals, which were omitted from ideas associated with the term 'open source'.

The idea of free software is that users of computing deserve freedom. They deserve in particular to have control over their computing. And proprietary software does not allow users to have control of their computing. Proprietary software keeps users divided and helpless. Divided because each user is forbidden to redistribute it to others, and helpless because the users can't change it since they don't have the source code. They can't study what it really does.

So the proprietary program is a system of unjust power. The developers or owner of the program has unjust power over the users, and the program is simply an instrument of that power. This is an injustice, and the idea of free software is to escape from that injustice and put an end to it.

So free software respects the user's freedom. So a program is free if it gives the user the four essential freedoms.

Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom one is the freedom to study the source code and change it so the program does your computing as you wish. Freedom two is the freedom to help others - the freedom to redistribute exact copies when you wish. Freedom three is the freedom to contribute to your community, which is the freedom to distribute your modified copies. And these four freedoms mean that the social system of using and distributing the program is an ethical system.

With these four freedoms the users control the program. Without these four freedoms the program controls the users. It's always one way or the other with software: with free software the users control the program, with proprietary software the program controls the users, and the owner controls the program and through it controls the users.

So this is not a technical issue - it's an ethical issue. It's an ethical issue that arises from the use of certain technology. But because it's an ethical issue and not a technical one, it's important: it's more important than any mere technical issue.

LXF: Most of our readers are passionate about free software…

RMS: But do they think of it as free software?

LXF: Well, when they contact us, many use the term 'free software' - some use 'open source'…

RMS: Ah, that's different, you see. Open source refers to different ideas - a different philosophy. And the difference is fundamental, because it's at the level of values. It's not a disagreement over some detail; it's a disagreement over the most basic thing.

We are aiming for a free society, where the users have freedom. Open source organisations and leaders say they're aiming for better-quality code. These are about as far apart as you can get, because we're saying it's for freedom and social solidarity, and they're saying it's for quality.

LXF: Isn't that one way you can lead people from one system to another, though?

RMS: I don't understand - they're different.

LXF: But if you have a company that makes proprietary software, it might be hard to adjust its mentality towards the GPL and free software. If you can ease it into the idea of open source, through talking about the benefits of quality - once it gets used to the idea, you can expand…

RMS: Actually, you can't. What I've found is that talking to people about open source - it might get them to use some free programs; it might get them to contribute sometimes to free programs. But it reinforces their values, which are the deepest thing that we'd want to change.

So there's a big difference between convincing someone to run some free programs or run a mostly free operating system, and teaching that person to value freedom. They're not the same, and the first doesn't usually lead to the second.

In fact, when the open source philosophy spreads a lot - which it has - it tends to close people's minds to the ideas of free software. It even tends to cover up our existence. Most of the articles that talk about the GNU system, they don't call it the GNU system and they don't call it free software. They describe it as open source, and they give the impression that we - its developers - agree with the open source ideas that the readers have heard of already, and would never guess at what we're really standing for.

LXF: Then do you think in hindsight that, back in the early '80s when you originated the GNU project, the term 'free software' was best? I try to say 'libre'…

RMS: I say 'libre' also, for the same reason.

LXF: When some people hear 'free software', they think of rubbish spyware on Windows machines.

RMS: It took me time to recognise that this distinction was vital. In 1983, when I announced [GNU], I hadn't separated these concepts. It took a few years before I did. So again, in The GNU Manifesto, posted in 1985, there's still some confusion between the two meanings of 'free'.

It was after that that I became aware of the need to emphasise that it's free as in freedom, not free as in price. Think of free speech, not free beer. Sure, it would've been better if I had realised that earlier. Although exactly what I would have said - it's not clear, because the English language doesn't have a word that uniquely means what I want to say.

The only common word for free in the sense of freedom is free, so that's why we say 'free/libre', because with that word we can clarify the point.

I notice there's a statement here in your magazine [LXF143] about LibreOffice, which is an important illustration. Sun acquired StarOffice, and released it as free software under the name OpenOffice.org. But the people at Sun who did this were not supporters, politically, of the ideas of free software.

They were indeed open source supporters. So their goal was to make their program good quality and a success - not to give the users freedom. That wasn't their goal, although since their source code was free software, it did respect the user's freedom, but they weren't thinking about it in those terms.

So they made a list of extensions, and in it they put proprietary extensions. Around last May, we - the Free Software Foundation - announced a plan to make our own extensions site for OpenOffice.org, which would not have the non-free extensions. It was a serious problem that OpenOffice.org was promoting these programs, giving people the idea that non-free programs were OK.

So, what could I do about it? Well, we asked people, let's make our own list of extensions. LibreOffice uses our list of extensions - they've taken it over.

That problem is solved, and the reason that they did this was that the people who are making this version of the program are free software activists - they care about freedom. They will take decisions for the sake of freedom. This shows that people who don't think about freedom or value freedom will sometimes do things for other reasons that help our freedom.

But you can't count on that. Sometimes people will find it suits their motives better to do things that work against our freedom. Linus Torvalds originally developed Linux as proprietary software, in 1991. In 1992 he released it under the GNU GPL, and thus, combining Linux with the GNU system became possible as a way of making a completely free operating system.

But he didn't do that because he valued freedom - he had other motives. I'm not completely sure what they were. And then in 1996, he began inserting pieces of non-free software into Linux - the binary blobs for firmware.

When we at the FSF found out about this, we started campaigning for something to be done about it - that was several years ago. We started pushing for the free distributions of GNU/Linux to get rid of the blobs. And then Alexandre Oliva started distributing Linux-libre, which is Linux with the blobs deleted.

The gnu hero

LXF: Is there any value in having an official GNU distribution? You see a lot of these purely free GNU/Linux distributions, such as Trisquel and gNewSense, and a lot of them are falling back - they're really scattered projects. Is there room for an official GNU? GNU's GNU/Linux?

RMS: I think it would be good if more of them started working together. But I don't want to start another distro that would be GNU - because that would be a slap in the face to all of those people working on those distros now, and I don't like taking a side among them, having a preference among them. It would be sort of unfortunate to do that.

LXF: Many of our readers want to know what exactly you run as an example. There are the photos on your site of you working with a ThinkPad, but you don't recommend that now.

RMS: I don't use the ThinkPad - those photos are from years ago. Now I'm using this Lemote machine - Yeeloong - you can think of that as 'remote' with a Chinese accent!

I chose this machine because it's free all the way down to the BIOS. It has a MIPS-type processor, a Chinese version of the MIPS. In any case, the point is, it solves that problem.

LXF: Did you have to modify this, or can you buy it as a purely free piece of hardware?

RMS: I wouldn't call it that - I would call it specified hardware. But yeah, you can buy it.

LXF: And what are you running on it?

RMS: I'm running gNewSense, which is the only totally free GNU/Linux distro that runs in a MIPS. The others are for PCs, so they won't run. gNewSense supports also PCs.

LXF: Going back to the bigger picture, what would you say is the biggest threat to free software in 2011?

RMS: There are several. There are legal prohibitions, such as software patents in some countries that have foolish policies. And there are laws that censor free software explicitly, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, which censors free software that you can break digital handcuffs with.

The European Union has similar laws. Both the US and the EU try to push nasty laws like that on to other countries, through treaties that they ask them to sign. So these are malicious governments.

Then there are the obstacles created by manufacturers, working together often with Microsoft. For instance, there are many pieces of PC hardware that can only be used from Windows. And typically the specs of that hardware are not available, so that of course is an unethical practice - to sell someone a product and refuse to tell them how to run it. That shouldn't be allowed.

Another obstacle is the tendency to sell computers with bundled Windows. I would recommend prohibiting that practice, too.

Then there's the tendency of some companies to donate gratis, or nearly gratis, copies of their non-free programs to schools. Microsoft does this, Apple does this - and I've read that the Gates Foundation does this. Bill Gates's idea of charity is to get school students hooked on Windows, so that he can make more money. That's not charity, I think.

LXF: A question one of our readers wanted to ask: is a world of only free software still feasible? Should that still be the ultimate goal?

RMS: Yes, it's the goal, I think. That's my goal. Now, it may be impossible to totally eradicate the last little bits of non-free software. After all, in almost 200 years of abolitionism, we haven't eliminated slavery. There are places where people are effectively slaves. I've read claims that some foreign workers in the UK are effectively slaves, because if they were to complain, they would end up getting deported. So it's hard to totally eliminate some form of abuse, but I'm sure that a society in which proprietary software is an unusual exception is possible if we demand one together.

LXF: A lot more people are using smartphones and tablets as their primary computing platforms, with their app stores…

RMS: That doesn't change anything, really. A smartphone is a computer - it's not built using a computer - the job it does is the job of being a computer. So, everything we say about computers, that the software you run should be free - you should insist on that - applies to smartphones just the same. And likewise to those tablets.

Now, what should we say about those app stores? Well, first of all, the Apple and Microsoft app stores forbid free software. They only allow non-free software. This shows how evil they are. But remember, they're on the basis of a non-free operating system.

If you want to live in freedom, you need to not just insist on apps that are free, but to insist on an operating system that's free. So the 'iMoan' and the 'iBad' are fundamentally bad. They can't get you anywhere near freedom, so you shouldn't use them.

And likewise, Windows Phoney 7 is not going to give you any freedom, so those products are obviously totally bad. They continue the mistreatment by distributing these non-free apps, and only nonfree apps - it makes the nastiness bigger, but even if they hadn't done that, it would still be unacceptable.

Now, Android is a different case. The source code of Android is free as Google releases it, but they use a non-copyleft license, except for the case of Linux - which is under GPL v2. So the result is that the licence doesn't protect the users from lock-down, or Tivoization - which is the practice of making a free program's executable effectively non-free, by stopping the user from installing and using his own version.

So many kinds of smartphone with Android in them block the user from installing his own versions of the software.

LXF: There's still a battle going on here to win the minds of a lot of people - they don't even know what source code is.

RMS: Absolutely.

LXF: My parents for instance - it's a case of trying to find the right approach…

RMS: I use the analogy of recipes. It's a good analogy, because a program is a lot like a recipe. They're both a series of steps to be carried out to get some desired result. And if you look at the way that cooks use recipes, you'll see that in practice they enjoy the same four freedoms in the way they use recipes.

Cooks cook recipes freely, they study and change them when they wish, they redistribute copies, and if they make a modified version, they might distribute copies of their version. So imagine if businesses and the state decided to impose proprietary recipes. Suppose the state said: starting tomorrow, if you copy or change your recipe we will put you in prison and call you a pirate. Imagine how angry all cooks would be.

A lot of people who don't know anything about programming will understand this. The state hasn't tried to do it with recipes - but that's exactly what it's tried to do with software.

LXF: One last thing, do you still do any hacking these days?

RMS: I occasionally do some hacking, but not programming - not with computers. I think the Guantanamero (http://stallman.org/guantanamero.html) was a hack, a song parody of Guantanamera. I've written another song parody in Spanish since then.

LXF: Is there going to be a follow up to the Free Software Song?

RMS: I don't think so!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Guide For Switching To Linux At Your Church

My earlier post on how we migrated to using Linux raised some questions. Some wondered why other churches, schools and Christian ministries did not do this (though there are many that have). Others wondered how they could do it themselves.

If I were to visit another church, Christian school, mission field, or other ministry for the purpose of upgrading their technology and moving to open source software, here is a basic outline of what I would do. Hopefully, you can use this as a guideline for doing this in your own organization.

Assess what you already have

Many times, people do not necessarily need to upgrade to the latest and greatest hardware. Especially in places where money is tight, reusing hardware you already have can be a great savings. A 10-year old computer running a modern operating system is possible and easy with Linux.

Along with that, I would need to know what infrastructure is there. Is there already a network in place? Are the buildings already wired? What servers, if any, are there? What is the current backup strategy? What type of printers are you working with?

Are there any proprietary programs that your ministry depends on? If so, some thought is going to have to go into how to export and import that data into another program. In some cases, there just isn’t an open-source alternative. In an instance like that there are options such as dual-booting, virtual machines, WINE or keeping a computer as-is solely for those programs.

What are your goals?

Technology is a tool. I can use a really expensive sledgehammer to put a nail in the wall so that I can hang a picture, but because it is expensive doesn’t make it the right tool for the job. You may not need the latest and greatest computer out there for what you plan to do. But, you need to know what it is that you plan to do.

Do you really need to be playing those graphic-intensive 3D games on your computer at church? Will you be recording services to digital audio? Will you do any video editing at all? Will you be using a projector? How many computers do you want and where do you want to put them? You need to have an idea what you want to do with the computers in your ministry not only now but 5-10 years from now. Have a vision, or you will be disappointed.

3. Explore your options

One wonderful thing about Free and Open Source Software is that there are numerous options. This can be a two-edged sword, though! What works for others may or may not work for you. Ask questions and do research.

One thing that is consistently at the top of my list is the support and the community that surrounds the project. A good community is good assurance for the integrity and lifespan of any program. Linux itself would not have survived if it weren’t for the incredible community that has grown since its humble beginnings in 1991.

Speaking of support, if you haven’t already done so, it may be a good idea to enlist help from others who have done this before. As helpful as people are on the internet, or even a phone call, nothing beats having someone there in person to help when you are having trouble.

4. Setup a schedule

Once you have some goals in place and have settled on what your needs are, you need to schedule a time to put your plan in action. Will it be a gradual roll-out or will it be done all at once? Do you have a plan for backing up files and importing them to the new systems? I would make sure that it was done a time that would be the least disruptive. Communicate with those whom the migration affects. Don’t delete the pastor’s sermon notes just before he goes to print them!

5. Do it!

At this point the only thing left is to execute the plan that was developed. Download the distribution of your choice (I use Ubuntu, but there are many, many others that may fit your needs better), burn the CD, stick it in your computer, boot it up and follow the prompts. You may get stuck at some point in the process, – don’t be afraid of asking for help.

These are some rough guidelines for switching to Linux and open-source software in a ministry, or really, any other setting. I would like to flesh this out into a nice flowchart or more detailed checklist at some point in the future. What did I miss? What other areas would you focus in on? If you have suggestions or even helpful criticisms, let me know in the comments.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Resetting Your Expectations

You have certain expectations in your daily life. Expectations of yourself, your children, your family members, your friends, and your former spouse. Until you stop and think about it, you may not realize just how high your standards are for yourself and for those around you. To move forward into the future, you need to learn to reset your expectations.

Consider how much you are asking of yourself and how much you can actually handle. Also, do you expect more from others than is realistic under the circumstances of your divorce? If you find yourself getting upset because someone does not live up to a certain expectation of yours, then maybe it's time to back off and reset that expectation.

Dr. Jim A. Talley says, "You expected somebody to do something. That person didn't do it, and you get mad. What makes you even madder is that person doesn't seem to give a rip that he or she didn't do it. Now you're really hurt, and you begin to boil on the inside. You shift at that point to real bitterness. You have to go back and reset your expectations to what you can control and deal with. You can't force other people into your expectations."

Reset your standards to a place where you can function, and examine your motivation for having that expectation in the first place.

"People may think they are doing what is right, but the LORD examines the heart" (Proverbs 21:2 NLT).